The night was calm, and in the morning the Lieutenant resolved to order the embarkation of everything and everybody that very day. He, therefore, went down to the lake to look at the raft.
The fog was still thick, but the sunbeams were beginning to struggle through it. The clouds had been swept away by the hurricane of the preceding day, and it seemed likely to be hot.
When Hobson reached the banks of the lake, the fog was still too dense for him to make out anything on its surface, and he was waiting for it to clear away, when he was joined by Mrs Barnett, Madge, and several others.
The fog gradually cleared off, drawing back to the end of the lake, but the raft was nowhere to be seen.
Presently a gust of wind completely swept away the fog.
The raft was gone! There was no longer a lake! The boundless ocean stretched away before the astonished colonists!
Hobson could not check a cry of despair; and when he and his companions turned round and saw the sea on every side, they realised with a shock of horror that their island was now nothing more than an islet!
During the night six-sevenths of the district once belonging to Cape Bathurst had silently floated away, without producing a shock of any kind, so completely had the ice been worn away by the constant action of the waves, the raft had drifted out into the offing, and those whose last hope it had been could not see a sign of it on the desolate sea.
The unfortunate colonists were now overwhelmed with despair; their last hope gone, they were hanging above an awful abyss ready to swallow them up; and some of the soldiers in a fit of madness were about to throw themselves into the sea, when Mrs Barnett flung herself before them, entreating them to desist. They yielded, some of them weeping like children.
The awful situation of the colonists was indeed manifest enough, and we may well pity the Lieutenant surrounded by the miserable despairing creatures. Twenty-one persons on an islet of ice which must quickly melt beneath their feet! The wooded hills had disappeared with the mass of the island now engulfed; not a tree was left. There was no wood remaining but the planks of the rough lodging, which would not be nearly enough to build a raft to hold so many. A few days of life were all the colonists could now hope for; June had set in, the mean temperature exceeded 68° Fahrenheit, and the islet must rapidly melt.
As a forlorn hope, Hobson thought he would make a reconaissance of his limited domain, and see if any part of it was thicker than where they were all now encamped. In this excursion he was accompanied by Mrs Barnett and Madge.
“Do you still hope!” inquired the lady of her faithful companion.
“I hope ever!” replied Madge.
Mrs Barnett did not answer, but walked rapidly along the coast at the Lieutenant’s side. No alteration had taken place between Cape Bathurst and Cape Esquimaux, that is to say, for a distance of eight miles. It was at Cape Esquimaux that the fracture had taken place, and running inland, it followed a curved line as far as the beginning of the lagoon, from which point the shores of the lake, now bathed by the waves of the sea, formed the new coast-line. Towards the upper part of the lagoon there was another fracture, running as far as the coast, between Cape Bathurst and what was once Port Barnett, so that the islet was merely an oblong strip, not more than a mile wide anywhere.
Of the hundred and forty square miles which once formed the total superficial area of the island, only twenty remained.
Hobson most carefully examined the new conformation of the islet, and found that its thickest part was still at the site of the former factory. He decided, therefore, to retain the encampment where it was, and, strange to say, the instinct of the quadrupeds still led them to congregate about it.
A great many of the animals had, however, disappeared with the rest of the island, amongst them many of the dogs which had escaped the former catastrophe. Most of the quadrupeds remaining were rodents; and the bear, which seemed terribly puzzled, paced round and round the islet like a caged animal.
About five o’clock in the evening the three explorers returned to the camp. The men and women were gathered together in gloomy silence in the rough shelter still remaining to them, and Mrs Joliffe was preparing some food. Sabine, who was less overcome than his comrades, was wandering about in the hope of getting some fresh venison, and the astronomer was sitting apart from every one, gazing at the sea in an absent indifferent manner, as if nothing could ever rouse or astonish him again.
The Lieutenant imparted the results of his excursion to the whole patty. He told them that they were safer where they were than they would be on any other spot, and he urged them not to wander about, as there were signs of another approaching fracture half way between the camp and Cape Esquimaux. The superficial area of the islet would soon be yet further reduced, and they could do nothing, absolutely nothing.
The day was really quite hot. The ice which had been “disinterred” for drinkable water melted before it was brought near the fire. Thin pieces of the ice crust of the steep beach fell off into the sea, and it was evident that the general level of the islet was being lowered by the constant wearing away of its base in the tepid waters.
No one slept the next night. Who could have closed his eyes with the knowledge that the abyss beneath might open at any moment? — who but the little unconscious child who still smiled in his mother’s arms, and was never for one instant out of them?
The next morning, June 4th, the sun rose in a cloudless sky. No change had taken place in the conformation of the islet during the night.
In the course of this day a terrified blue fox rushed into the shed, and could not be induced to leave it. The martens, ermines, polar hares, musk-rats, and beavers literally swarmed upon the site of the former factory. The wolves alone were unrepresented, and had probably all been swallowed up with the rest of the island. The bear no longer wandered from Cape Bathurst, and the furred animals seemed quite unconscious of its presence; nor did the colonists notice it much, absorbed as they were in the contemplation of the approaching doom, which had broken down all the ordinary distinctions of race.
A little before noon a sudden hope — too soon to end in disappointment — revived the drooping spirits of the colonists.
Sabine, who had been standing for some time on the highest part of the islet looking at the sea, suddenly cried —
“A boat! a boat!”
It was as if an electric shock had suddenly ran through the group, for all started up and rushed towards the hunter.
The Lieutenant looked at him inquiringly, and the man pointed to a white vapour on the horizon. Not a word was spoken, but all watched in breathless silence as the form of a vessel gradually rose against the sky.
It was indeed a ship, and most likely a whaler. There was no doubt about it, and at the end of an hour even the keel was visible.
Unfortunately this vessel appeared on the east of the islet, that is to say, on the opposite side to that from which the raft had drifted, so that there could be no hope that it was coming to their rescue after meeting with the raft, which would have suggested the fact of fellow-creatures being in danger.
The question now was, would those in this vessel perceive the islet? Would they be able to make out signals on it? Alas! in broad daylight, with a bright sun shining, it was not likely they would. Had it been night some of the planks of the remaining shed might have made a fire large enough to be seen at a considerable distance, but the boat would probably have disappeared before the darkness set in; and, although it seemed of little use, signals were made, and guns fired on the islet.
The vessel was certainly approaching, and seemed to be a large three-master, evidently a whaler from New Archangel, which was on its way to Behring Strait after having doubled the peninsula of Alaska. It was to the windward of the islet, and tacking to starboard with its lower sails, top sails, and top-gallant sails all set. It was steadily advancing to the north. A sailor would have seen at a glance that it was not bearing towards the islet, but it might even yet perceive it, and alter its course.
“If it does see us,” whispered Hobson in Long’s ear, “it is more likely to avoid us than to come nearer.”
The Lieutenant was right, for there is nothing vessels dread more in these latitudes than the approach of icebergs and ice-floes; they look upon them as floating rocks, against which there is a danger of striking, especially in the night, and they therefore hasten to change their course when ice is sighted; and this vessel would most likely do the same, if it noticed the islet at all.
The alternations of hope and despair through which the anxious watchers passed may be imagined, but cannot be described. Until two o’clock in the afternoon they were able to believe that Heaven had at last taken pity on them — that help was coming — that their safety was assured. The vessel continued to approach in an oblique direction, and was presently not more than six miles from the islet. Signal after signal was tried, gun after gun fired, and some of the planks of the shed were burnt.
All in vain — either they were not seen, or the vessel was anxious to avoid the islet.
At half-past two it luffed slightly, and bore away to the northeast.
In another hour a white vapour was all that was visible, and that soon disappeared.
On this the soldier Kellet burst into a roar of hysterical laughter, and flinging himself on the ground, rolled over and over like a madman.
Mrs Barnett turned and looked Madge full in the face, as if to ask her if she still hoped, and Madge turned away her head.
On this same ill-fated day a crackling noise was heard, and the greater part of the islet broke off, and plunged into the sea. The cries of the drowning animals rent the air, and the islet was reduced to the narrow strip between the site of the engulfed house and Cape Bathurst. It was now merely a piece of ice.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01